Let’s state calmly and sanely that space militarization is happening. It is a little questioned and less touted reality of the military and aerospace industry. It enables our modern way of life. Let us also state that this is not the result of a sinister plan. Space militarization is plodding along with small, incremental steps, lacking fanfare and, crucially, a sweeping vision (which would require a political debate and legal framework). As of yet, there are no villains akin to Dr. Strangelove in the story of space militarization. Though when the Commander of the United States Air Force Space Command says
Space superiority is our day-to-day mission. Space supremacy is our vision for the future. Space superiority is not our birthright, but it is our destiny.
as he did in March 2005, and with a name like a Star Wars villain (General Lance Lord), we may have a contender for villainy.
No, I’m sure General Lord is an all right guy just doing his job. Like all the other military planners, engineers and strategists writing memos from their cubicles about how to take the advantage in space.
Below is a primer on space militarization since the Chinese shot a KEW (kinetic energy weapon) into an aging weather satellite in 2007. My information is primarily based on studied from RAND and the Hudson Institute. A rash of these papers come out every few years, as they have for decades. They help us put this mysterious and scary subject in perspective with the professionals tasked with carrying it out.
Put simply, space militarization will continue because “space systems enable our modern way of war” on the ground (William J. Lynn III, A Military Strategy for the New Space Environment, 2011). The U.S. has five independent satellite constellations for its “defense connectivity needs.”
And even if that were not the case, space militarization would be a factor because space systems also enable our modern way of life. Circling 20,000 km above us every 12 hours are 24 GPS satellites—5 to 12 of them are above you right now, connecting with your phone. An Iridium constellation of 66 satellites all in Low Earth Orbit ensure all global communications. If Russia or China or Iran can take out these satellites and basically stop us from the dozen or more everyday tasks (some trivial, others crucial) that average Americans have come to depend on, well, what are we to do about that?
According to the National Security Space Strategy (2011), the Defense Department’s “Space Policy Mandate of Operations” has 4 quadrants, all of which support military readiness:
Maritime domain warning
Internet and communication satellites
Militarily relevant data streams
Positioning, navigation, timing services (PNT)
Synchronization of operations
Search & rescue
Note that there is nothing in this “Mandate of Operations” that George Lucas or J.J. Abrams would be remotely interested in putting in a movie. Space Militarization, for now, has nothing to do with dog fights in lunar orbit. All space infrastructure is directed toward terrestrial targets for the simple reason that the primary targets of war are terrestrial—except for the satellites that now guide all aspects of land, air and sea missions.
This is how Lynn describes our space infrastructure: “What are in space are the sensory organs, which find and fix [terrestrial] targets… and the nervous system, which connects the combatant elements and permits them to operate cohesively.”
He adds that the U.S. is “inordinately dependent on its complex but exposed network of command, control, communications” space networks. The reason they are exposed is because a satellite’s position is impossible to hide. A high schooler could do the math on the trajectory that would bring a missile and a satellite into collision.
This is the reason China, Russia, and every other would-be world power is so interested in developing their space capabilities. Sure India wants its own rover to beam back pictures from Mars, and China would love its own Neil Armstrong moment. But twined with that—like it was for our own Neil Armstrong moment—is this military necessity: taking out U.S. satellite systems would level the playing field on the terrestrial shooting war, which China et. al. would never win otherwise. This is the reason that space militarization will continue—a quieter, gentler arms race.
In one of Mary FitzGerald’s last dispatches—China’s Military Strategy for Space, 2007—she wrote about the types of weapons the Chinese are developing. Here is a sample list:
KEWs: ultra high speed warheads that collide with targets
Direct Energy Weapons (DEW): lasers, microwaves and particle beams
Hypersonic Aerospace Aircraft
Orbital Ballistic Missile: can function as an ICMB, anti-satellite weapon (ASAT) or orbital bomber
Ground Based Laser
Orbital Transfer Vehicle
Space-Based Radio Frequency Energy Weapon
Space Operations Vehicle: on-demand space lift from ground to orbit
(Naturally, we are working on the same type of weapons. It is an arms race after all.)
Now that potential future enemies are playing target practice with weather satellites, the U.S. is falling back on a deterrence posture.
According to Lynn, American space deterrence has four objectives right now:
1) Space situational awareness: identify and assess all orbital objects so that we can identify the origin of any attack. (The potential for an attack to happen in space without our ability to know the source is very real, so is the potential for a 3rd party to launch an attack that will implicate another world power who had nothing to do with it. As John M. Collins wrote in his 1989 congressional report: “Space may prove to be a particularly fruitful environment for deception.”)
2) Enhance the survivability of space satellites
3) Launch reserve satellites to replace those damaged or destroyed in an attack – “rapid response space launch capabilities.”
4) Mindset shift toward “Small and flexible distributed capabilities” in space and on the ground so that if one satellite constellation is damaged the entire network will no collapse.
That is a very hopeful-sounding list. Of course, the obvious down side to space war, like all wars (but more so, I’d argue) is that things can spiral out of control very fast. The cascade failure depicted in Gravity is a realistic possibility. But there are other possibilities for catastrophe that may not be deterred or even predicted.
In his Rice University speech on space policy, September 12, 1962, President John F. Kennedy said this:
There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet. Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation may never come again.
Nearly 55 years later, it feels like that opportunity has come and gone.